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How Yeast, Sex and Patagonia Sparked Heineken's Newest Beer

By Published on .

Heineken's global master brewer Willem van Waesberghe has a masters degree in geochemistry, a diploma in brewing technology and 12 years of experience guiding brewing research for the company. So you can't blame him for getting excited about the intricacies of beer making, including the fornication habits of yeast.

The sexual tendencies of the single-cell microorganisms come up as van Waesberghe describes Heineken's newest brew, H41, which makes its U.S. debut in New York on draught in October. It's part of a new "Wild Lager" series of limited edition beers for which Heineken brewers will experiment with yeast, which it calls the "soul of beer." H41 will enter other markets in 2018.

The series is an example of how large beer marketers are leveraging the know-how of their brewers to capitalize on the thirst for variety brought on by the craft beer revolution. Diageo's Guinness brand, for instance, markets new beers under the "Brewers Project" label, for which brewers at its Open Gate Brewery in Dublin explore new creations. (These have included Rye Pale Ale, West Indies Porter, Dublin Porter and Irish Wheat.) Guinness is expanding the concept at a planned brewery in Baltimore called the Open Gate Brewery and Barrel House.

But let's get back to yeast, which produces carbonation and alcohol during fermentation. In ideal conditions, yeast clones itself. "But when it's in really difficult circumstances, it has sex and then two yeasts completely merge together," van Waesberghe says in a Dutch accent.

Heineken says the yeast used in H41—which was discovered in the forests of Patagonia—is the "mother of all yeasts" and the missing parent of the so-called "A-yeast" that the brewer has been using in its flagship lager brand for 130 years.

Sure, it's complicated. But Heineken is leveraging the origin story as it begins marketing the beer in the U.S. to drinkers increasingly turned on by such brewing complexities. H41 is named for the longitudinal coordinate where it was discovered: 41 degrees south.

Just like local craft brewers, big brewers typically do not back these creations with glitzy and expensive ads. Bernardo Spielmann, Heineken's senior brand director, promises a slow rollout for H41 with limited distribution. The goal is to "really generate demand and people talking about it, versus really trying to push, push, push," he says.

Van Waesberghe says he ultimately wants to create beers from yeasts on every continent. "Beer lovers are not really talking about yeast. They are always talking about hops. They are always talking about malt," he says. "But yeast is this unknown thing, and it's really the core, the essence, of brewing beer."

H41 first launched in Italy in 2016 and is now available in Heineken's home country of the Netherlands, as well as the U.K., France, Ireland and Dubai. The brewer started in Italy because Italians are well-versed in yeast, says van Waesberghe, as it's the principal component of pizza dough.

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